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Illustration by @sabrinagevaerd

Malta: the Mediterranean holiday destination with draconian abortion laws

The realities of being a pro-choice activist in a country with fewer than half a million people

When most people think of Malta they might think of blue skies, beaches, or pastizzi, the traditional Maltese mouthful of a pastry stuffed with ricotta or curried peas. With our beautifully historic capital city and world renowned Blue Lagoon, the Mediterranean island does indeed stand out from the crowd. Unfortunately, there is also a dark side to our uniqueness, in that we are the only EU country that criminalises abortion under almost all circumstances. 

Cherry-picked progression

While the island can be considered progressive in many ways, such as its status as a hub for LGBTQI+ rights, the same cannot be said for the agency extended to people with the capacity for pregnancy. 

Malta’s abortion laws hold that no matter if there is a fatal foetal anomaly, and regardless of whether the pregnancy is a result of sexual assault, you cannot obtain an abortion in Malta.

In the past decade, we’ve watched as countries like Poland have slowly had their reproductive rights eroded, and where abortion is now only accessible in cases of assault or if the pregnant person’s life is at risk. We have also looked on as even more recently, Roe vs Wade was overturned in the US – and the reproductive rights of millions were withdrawn in an instant. 

There is a certain outrage when you witness the loss of something you’ve always had. In countries like Poland and the US, those rights were taken away from them. However, in Malta, those rights never existed. Not having them is all we have ever known.

The most recent pro-choice rally took place in September 2022, with the largest number of people to date showing up to protest. The sense of unity and sheer presence of one another was ultimately a testament to the socio-cultural change occurring in the Maltese attitude towards abortion. 

Multiple organisations were present, and both young and old listened as speeches were made in the name of reproductive rights. Activists chanted “Not the church, not the state, women will decide their fate”, and “liġijiet banali, aħna m’aħniex kriminali” (“banal laws, we are not criminals”). Amongst the crowds of people, placards could be read stating: “not an incubator”, “abortion is healthcare”and “abortion is love.” The atmosphere was electric, charged with the need for change.

Origins of the nascent pro-choice movement

The local pro-choice movement officially began in 2019, with the first pro-choice demonstration and rally. During this time, a coalition of ten organisations formed in support of reproductive rights. Since then, numerous milestones have taken place, with certain cases having a significant impact on Malta’s cultural view on abortion.

On one occasion, a woman’s passport was confiscated by the Maltese courts, based on the accusation made by her ex-partner that she may have an abortion abroad. The woman was represented by the Women’s Rights Foundation, who at the time stated that the woman had left the relationship due to domestic abuse. 

It is not within Malta’s jurisdiction to penalise someone for having an abortion abroad, therefore it is totally legal to obtain an abortion overseas. As such, the courts were ultimately punishing an abuse victim for hypothetically doing something completely legal. This epitomises the level of misogyny ingrained within the system. This case brought about a successful protest outside of the courts, after which they returned the passport to the victim.

Another significant case occurred this year, when Malta saw Andrea Prudente’s life being unnecessarily put at risk over an unviable pregnancy. Prudente, an American woman who travelled to Malta to enjoy her ‘babymoon’, was not given the life-saving option of termination even after her amniotic sac burst, because the doctors could still find a heartbeat. 

Against the odds, Prudente survived and the case made waves internationally, with the couple eventually going on to sue the Maltese government. This tragic case was followed by a reform being proposed on 16 November, to allow abortion when a pregnant person’s life is at risk. This was a momentous event, and evidence of the hard work of local activists and organisations.

These cases sparked campaigns, like Dear Decision Makers, which urged the Maltese government to reform abortion laws by exposing the reallife effects that criminalisation has in Malta.

The additional hurdle of stigma

Despite the pro-choice movement still being fresh and relatively small, it is a known fact that a significant amount of people in Malta have abortions. According to the statistics provided by Doctors for Choice Malta, around 300 medical abortions occur annually in Malta. 

However, these statistics only include those who have ordered pills online or had abortions in England and Wales, suggesting that the number is likely to be higher. Additionally, unsafe abortions are also difficult to track since they are often done at home. While speaking to me about these issues, Professor Isabel Stabile, a member of Doctors for Choice, said:

“Last year, at least 365 people in Malta received medical abortion pills in the post. We now know that the majority of Maltese people do not want their loved ones to risk prosecution and jail time for having an abortion. And yet Maltese people are being held back from coming forward openly due to stigma and shame. The blanket ban on abortion with criminal sanctions on pregnant people and their doctors should be something of the past.”

Forming part of one of the most active organisations in the coalition, Professor Stabile’s work with Doctors for Choice has become a significant part of the local movement. She was also present during the 2022 pro-choice rally, where she consumed medical abortion pills herself to demonstrate their safety. 

The pros and cons of big fish, small pond activism

As a Maltese pro-choice activist myself, it is undeniable that you feel the effects of your work considerably more than if you were working in a larger country. Thus, while the country and community is small, your individual impact is greater. However, as activist Francesca Zammit mentioned to me, the relative impact on your mental health is also significant: 

“Being a pro-choice activist has been one of the most amazing pursuits I have ever taken on,” she says. “However, it can also have a serious toll on your mental health. You’re always questioning whether it’s safe to voice your opinion, and if you can trust your colleagues. Because Malta is such a small country, it feels like the stigma that comes with speaking out is very powerful and can affect so many areas of your life prospects, ones you would never even think of.”

Francesca Zammit forms part of Young Progressive Beings, an activist organisation that fights for reproductive justice in Malta, and what she is saying does ultimately ring true. Many pro-choice activists with whom I share a community have, in some way, been harrassed, whether online or in person. In one case, a man commented: “shoot them in the head one by one” in reaction to one of the first ever pro-choice demonstrations. In another more recent incident, Dr Isabel Stabile (the above activist) was assaulted in the street during a roadside protest.

Overall, when it comes to the shame and stigma surrounding abortion in Maltese culture, it is clear that there is still a long journey ahead to acceptance. However, from its official inception in 2019, the local pro-choice movement has made incredible waves and continues to do so in the name of reproductive justice, due to a growing community with undeniable spirit. 

What can you do?

Thoroughly understanding the need for abortion is an essential element of enacting change. 

To gain further insight on the situation of abortion and the Maltese islands, read the Dear Decision Makers document. This online publication provides an in-depth look at how people with the capacity for pregnancy have suffered under Malta’s abortion laws, from a first-person perspective. It also touches upon the helplessness experienced by health professionals who feel that they are unable to do their job to the best of their ability due to the current laws on abortion.

To support the fight for reproductive rights in Malta, follow these accounts: 

Illustration by @sabrinagevaerd who says: The isolating aspects of navigating reproductive rights are often claustrophobic. As someone who was born in such a place, I’m familiar with the bone deep anxiety of navigating a system designed to deprive us of our own livelihood. 
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